In Half a Glass of Wine
Why overstate your bad habits? Why, in fact, state them at all? Two of the persistent beliefs about Poe are that he abused drugs and alcohol. Some of this Poe lore comes down over the last century and is based partly on his own letters and stories, and partly on the vengeful gossip of writers who didn't like him for personal or professional reasons. In the letters and stories, at least, Poe himself opines on the topic of drugs and alcohol, albeit with a whole lot of cross-pollination. The line between personal experience and the imaginative understanding of an experience gets blurred, and Poe's theatrical tendency to overstate his behavior asserts itself—either to enhance his mystique (to himself or others) or to express some sort of guilt or remorse.
“To be thoroughly conversant with Mans heart, is to take our final lesson in the iron-clasped volume of Despair.”—Poe on the heart of man
Explaining the Laudanum Episode
In a letter to Annie Richmond in 1848, Poe—despairing of ever being able to pull a second marriage out of a year of romantic intrigues—confessed to having swallowed an ounce of laudanum in an attempt to put himself out of his misery.
He got as far as unconsciousness, not having taken enough of the drug to meet his original goal. This is his only mention of drug use (although laudanum was used medicinally in those days), and even so, it's not clear whether it's just another bit of moonshine, designed to persuade Annie (or Helen Whitman, the object of his affection) of his love.
It is Poe's fictional narrators who self-medicate with opium, a choice the writer made to heighten the story's miasmic atmosphere and psychological rawness. Fifty years after Poe's most prolific period, Arthur Conan Doyle went so far as to give his detective hero Sherlock Holmes a cocaine habit, but no one ever supposed it was because Doyle himself had one.
What is laudanum?
Laudanum was a commonly prescribed medical drug in the nineteenth century. Derived from opium, it was used to treat an array of complaints ranging from insomnia to aches and pains.
Troubles with the Bottle
Alcohol, on the other hand, was clearly a problem. Poe wasn't a carouser or a barfly, and he didn't drink away whatever money he had. All it took, according to eyewitnesses, was less than a glass of wine. His father, David Poe, Jr., was an alcoholic, and so was his brother Henry. For Edgar, drinking was a complicated matter. It never took much to make him appear intoxicated. In a period fraught with tension between rollicking drunkenness and the Sons of Temperance, Poe wrestled with his own dislike of the loss of control drinking produced in him and the appealing image of the convivial Southern bon vivant he longed to be.
Fifteen years after he left the University of Virginia, Poe recalled his university days as “dissipated.” Interesting, since there's no record to support it. He was implying a habitual state of near incapacitation, and it simply hadn't happened. Some classmates recalled how he'd feverishly down a glass of “spirits” all at once, in a kind of strange desperation—not at all the sort of hobnobbing geniality he was after. He did have the kind of pain he'd try to deaden with alcohol later on—occasionally. The greatest damage to his reputation in this regard was the result of multiplied inaccuracies, and the ill will of peers whose toes were feeling the tread of Poe's shoes.
It was only after his death that his experiences with alcohol and laudanum were sensationalized. But for a man who yearned for respect and admiration, Poe was philosophical on the subject of public opinion: “As for the mob—let them talk on.”
they said …
“As an author his name will live, while three-fourths of the bastard critics and mongrel authors of the present day go down to nothingness and night. And the men who now spit upon his grave, by way of retaliation for some injury which they imagined they have received from Poe living, would do well to remember, that it is only an idiot or a coward who strikes the cold forehead of a corpse.”—George Lippard, in his obituary of Poe, 1849